Did You Do the Right Degree? Learnings From World Famous CEOs


No matter if you studied in the East or the West, many people see a degree as essential for success in today's world. But how important is your choice of subject on your success? Here's some learnings from the most successful of them all - the world's most famous CEOs.

Practical degrees

There are numerous examples of famous CEOs whose degrees directly relate to their day jobs. Maybe they knew their passion and needed the tools of university to help define it before unleashing them into the real world.

Most notably: Michael Bloomberg (CEO of Bloomberg) who in 1966 received his Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School; Bob Iger (Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company) who received his Bachelor of Science in Television and Radio from Ithica College and was recently named CEO of the Year by Chief Executive Magazine; and of course Larry Page (CEO of Google) received his Bachelor of Science with honours in Computer Engineering and a Master of Science in Computer Science.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Marissa Mayer, the list goes on, all boast amazing qualifications that signify a force to be reckoned with.

Unrelated degrees

There are some great examples of successful individuals who chose really random degrees that in no way predicted their amazing careers. Mark Parker (CEO of Nike) studied political science at Penn State, where he also happened to run track. He started his career at Nike as a shoe designer far afield from any political realm.

Stewart Butterfield (Founder and CEO of Flickr and Slack) received his Bachelors degree in Philosophy, only to later start a career in web design. Brian Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) studied at the Rhode Island School of Design majoring in Industrial Design.

And Jack Ma (CEO of Alibaba) received his Bachelors in English of all things. Even more interestingly he was only accepted at the Hangzhou Teacher's Institute on his fourth attempted application!

No degrees

But do you need a degree at all? These are perhaps the stories we all like best, the successes that came from sheer will and perseverance. Individuals who had the conviction to take a chance, play the odds, risk it all to make things happen.

A favourite would have to be the history of Sir Li Ka-Shing (Chairman of Cheung Kong-Holdings), who, having dropped out of school at 15 after the death of his father, got a job in a plastics trading company where he worked gruelling hours to support his family. Seven years later he started his own plastics manufacturing company specialising in artificial flowers. He is now Hong Kong's richest man with a vast and far-reaching empire.

Entrepreneurial success as seen by Bill Gates who dropped out of his pre-law degree at Harvard to pursue graduate courses in computer science only to then leave university entirely to found Microsoft. Similarly Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to work full time on his university pet project "Thefacebook."

And the ever-enigmatic Richard Branson had no university qualifications at all but the drive to start Virgin Group, now a major player in the aviation, entertainment and venture capital industries.

While the beginnings of each great story might vary tremendously there is a common thread among these individuals. It doesn't matter what they did or didn't do, all that mattered were their actions after - they showed perseverance, passion, self-belief, optimism and hard work.

Whilst not everyone can be a world famous CEO, we can all learn from their careers. And this is the most important point of all and one that relates to every name on this list - a desire to always keep learning. As Branson notes, if you don't go to university but go into business instead, it "doesn't mean that you're closing yourself off from learning and personal development. It simply means that you'll find it in different places."

Sueanne Parker

Writer, Production specialist, Creative enthusiast.

4 min read

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